I’m flying to Seattle on JetBlue, and my individual TV screen shows our route due west across Montana, just over the places I’ve always wanted to go: Missoula, Glacier National Park, Great Falls. The nose of the little white electronic plane is inching toward Spokane, which I happen to know is very near Moscow, Idaho, home to our man Josh Ritter. I know this because I got a huge glossy one-page-per-state driving atlas for Christmas (at my request), and sometimes I bone up on my American geography while I lay in bed a night. I have a tiny apartment in a big city, and I live alone, but if I heave that big atlas in bed with me, I can feel small (look at all the places to go!) and big (Vermont fits under my thumb!) and alone and together all at the same time. One night I traced my finger over Highway 61 back and forth from Minnesota, wondering where they put the bleachers in the sun.
I look at the unfamiliar towns friends have moved off to, and I check in on my favorite literary characters. And so I turned to I and looked up Moscow, slightly surprised to find it practically on the border with Washington. Josh mentions his native Idaho at his concerts a lot—and there’s the song—and I’ve heard him on occasion invite the concert hall to his house. I’ve inquired ingenuously with friends how seriously I might take this invitation. I mean, honest, I didn’t think I was the sort to show up unannounced at a stranger’s house, but that’s the thing about Josh: he makes one feel it just might be okay, so one needs her friends around so she does not blunder.
Back to Snow is Gone, don’t you think? I told you what it meant to me, gave you my own personal context, which always means so much to the self, and can never be adequately replicated for others. (And yet we blog, and pen songs, trying, trying.) So let me try to strike a more general tone, because it’s too lovely a song to move on just now, and there’s that matter of the window.
(Just over Spokane now! The sun sets in a downy cloudbed awash in an indescribable mix of coral, pink, gold, violet and a hot yellow. The clouds have separated into swiftly moving wisps, that, if you squint, resemble red dust moving across the plains or the desert. It’s a beautiful Western scene. I look down at the cluster of tiny houses and can’t help smiling. Somewhere down there . . . )
In Snow is Gone the speaker starts addressing the birds dustying their wings upon the lawn in the morning sunshine. The speaker seems to want some attention, but they’re never looking ’round for me; they’re doing that darty-eyed bird thing, not having it. Oh well, he says, and casually drops that goosebumps line I’d rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know.
Next verse he’s addressing one bird in particular, one whose feathers he’s admired, one with confectionery airs. Confectionery! This one’s not having it either, even though the speaker is singing in exultation and pulling all the stops. And we think, uh oh, this is a girl. Bird, after all, is a term for girl in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere, I don’t know.) But oh well, he reasons, again, and offers an honest truth and a request: I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.
In the third verse everything turns round: the birds are gone (to roost, and in the live version you can hear Josh smile on that line—did you know that, amongst his other talents, Josh Ritter gave smile a sound?), the speaker taking their place outside and underneath her window. He’s singing his heart out, unsure whether he sings for himself or her. But he’s flown a long way, honey, and he’s got something to say—a confession—and he demands a space to say it in, after which he promises to go. I’ve heard Josh shout the line THEN I’LL GO!, and my spirit just says A-men. As one who wants not for passion or ease (and overindulgence) of expression, I love this line for capturing that glorious and terrifying and exhausting moment when you’ve worked it through in your mind, and in your heart, and it’s burning you up, and maybe you rehearse, but you make that humblest request of another: Just listen to me; I’ll ask nothing else. In fact I’ll go. I think maybe it’s happened to me once. And rare is the man with the wherewithal and self-awareness and confidence (or maybe abandon?) to do it.
There are important Ritter themes here. Pay attention to that window, to that outside-looking-in motif; you’ll find him out there again and again. I love this song for the contradiction in the patented Ritter modesty, the aw-shucks-she-doesn’t-like-me-back sentiment, and the confession of why he loves to perform–because it makes him the center of attention. He sings to be adored, and if you’ve been to a concert, you know this is true. And yet mercy he gets. Mercy in spades.
And there’s the jubilant chorus, in which a seemingly deliriously happy speaker greets the birds with Be my darling! Gosh this song can make you happy. At the end the birds exchange last night’s feathers for new ones, and you wonder what did it. The telling? The performance? The girl who came down and opened the door?
Today, for me, this song is about being an artist in love with the waking world, with her art, with another, with herself-as-artist. It’s about being a romantic, starting anew, taking a stand. It’s about being honest with oneself–even in contradiction–and in turn being ready to be honest with another. It’s about facing rejection and stating your Truth in a respectful and timely fashion, but stating it nonetheless. It’s about dignity and hope.
But maybe you say it’s about the weather.
That’s the marvelous thing about music—about art—isn’t it? Some man in one of those tiny matchstick houses down there sat down and wrote a song, and it means this to me, and that to you. And then it gathers memories and meaning and changes for each of us over time, and it will always hold infinite promise for those who haven’t heard it yet. We give it life in this way, and in return, it does the same for us.
No wonder he sings for the love of it. I write for the same.
Next: The past an address